If there is really to be a new openness in government, the Clinton Administration will find no better place to start than by a dramatic overhaul of the Freedom of Information Act. First Amendment concerns aside, its enforcement is pervaded by outmoded cold war assumptions. Closer to home is the particularly frustrating example of how the law currently can be manipulated to impede rather than expedite the flow of information.
Last October The Nation filed suit to compel the State Department to process our FOIA request for information about Ross Perot with the same cheerful willingness it responded to press inquiries about Bill Clinton's passport records. Perot's influence on the election was still uncertain, and The Nation's position was that if the public's right to know means anything, in this instance it meant the public was entitled to learn before the election what government files said about the businessman who would be President (see "Right to Know Perot," November 2, 1992).
U.S. District Judge Joyce Hens Green turned down our petition for expeditious treatment. Bypassing the opportunity to address the larger issue of the public's right to know, Judge Green ruled that The Nation's request was entitled to no more than the "first in, first out" handling normally given FOIA requests. In effect, this decision meant it would be months, if not years, before information about Perot could be released.
During the battle of the briefs, the Justice Department submitted an affidavit from one Frank Machak, head of the State Department's FOIA office. Its purpose was to bolster the government's contention that the Clinton passport requests had been mistakenly expedited and that Judge Green should not compound the error by ordering expeditious handling of The Nation's requests. Machak's affidavit was a vague and unsatisfying explanation of the Clinton speedup, but the government successfully persuaded Judge Green that it could not be more forthcoming because of an ongoing internal investigation being conducted by the State Department's Inspector General. …